What Is Art and What Isn’t Art?


Art is a cultural expression that illuminates society and history. It facilitates communication between societies with different values, and it can inspire action and give visibility to issues that would otherwise remain invisible. The impact of art reaches far and wide, from the grubby stuffed animals children create in their play to the 200-year-old paintings in the Louvre. It’s difficult to define art, but the seven elements of visual art — line, shape, form, space, texture and value — are the building blocks that make up any work of art, from a pencil sketch to the Mona Lisa.

Throughout human history, art has been at the forefront of every civilization’s culture. The pyramids of Egypt, Greek statues, Roman Colosseums and Gothic cathedrals all demonstrate art’s prominence. While much early art was religious, it has since evolved into a form of self-expression, exploration and storytelling.

Artists are a reflection of their time and the society that they live in, which is why most definitions of art include references to specific art movements or styles: Renaissance, Baroque and the various -isms. However, this approach undermines the unity that art is intended to embody. It also fails to recognize that a concept of art is constantly changing, even if the changes are not radical.

Some philosophers argue that all classical definitions of art fail because they are based on complex philosophical theories that include traditional metaphysics and epistemology. These arguments are akin to Wittgensteinianism, which contends that philosophical concepts, like the concept of art, are never truly self-contained or freestanding.

While the debate about what is and isn’t art continues, it’s important to recognize that art makes life more enjoyable, manageable and tolerable. This is true for the Fort Worth Water Gardens, iPhones, Versace furniture, Call of Duty video games and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Art is found in all aspects of daily life, from the floor rugs to the music played at your favorite restaurant.

A basic element of art is a desire to create beauty, which is the fundamental aspect of humanity that goes beyond mere utility. Beauty is a part of our natural instinct for harmony, balance and rhythm, which reflects our innate sense of aesthetics. It is a universal desire, and while it can be a subjective experience, all people appreciate beauty in one way or another.

The human need to express emotion through art is a powerful driving force behind many social movements, including the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. These movements used art as a means to unite diverse communities, open dialogue and change paradigms. Ultimately, the power of art to transform lives makes it essential to our well-being. A simple stroll through a gallery or museum can be an effective antidote to stress and depression, while it’s also known to improve cognitive function and mood. In a world where the ability to create is increasingly elusive, the power of art is more vital than ever before.